Working out is hard. Maintaining the motivation is even harder, says U of A study

A year-long University of Alberta study has concluded that people are more likely to throw in the sweat towel when both life — and unachievable expectations — get in the way.

Busyness of life, combined with disappointing results, cause people to throw in the sweat towel

A University of Alberta study found that lack of visible results and the busyness of life can reduce motivation to work out. (CBC)

It's not your imagination: Sticking to a regular exercise regime can be a workout all on its own. 

A year-long University of Alberta study has concluded that people are more likely to throw in the sweat towel when both life — and unachievable expectations — get in the way. 

"Exercise is a very complex behaviour. It's not like brushing your teeth, something that can easily be made into a habit," said Heather Larson, a University of Alberta PhD candidate in the faculty of Kinesiology, Sport and Recreation, and the study's lead author.

"One of the biggest obstacles to maintaining a regular exercise routine is just being able to prioritize it and fit it into a person's schedule, despite all these barriers and obstacles that will often pop up."

The study followed 273 sedentary people between the ages of 35 and 65 doing a structured series of one-hour strength and cardio sessions three times per week at a private fitness facility at the U of A.

Larson interviewed about 20 people who completed the program, plus a similar number from among the 60 per cent of participants who dropped out.

These interviews formed the basis of two research papers — one from February 2017, titled You Can't Always Get What You Want: Expectations, Outcomes, and Adherence of New Exercisers, and the second from April 2018, titled When You Don't Get What You Want — and it's Really Hard: Exploring Motivational Contributions to Exercise Dropout. 

The former was published in the journal Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise and Health, the latter in Psychology of Sport and Exercise.

U of A grad student Heather Larson says the gym isn't the only way to incorporate physical activity into daily life. (The Associated Press)

Among the themes that emerged from the quitters were difficulties fitting exercise into schedules and disappointment that expectations for weight loss or improved appearance weren't being met, Larson told CBC's Radio Active.

"One thing alone might not have been enough to get them to drop out," she said. "It was when that combination of things occurred."

On the other hand, Larson said,many participants who stuck with the program cited positive impacts that they attributed to the exercise regime: less stress, more energy, improved sleep.

A surprise finding was learning that some people stuck with the program only because they felt beholden to completing the study, she said. Many of them reduced or gave up on exercising after the study ended.

While most new exercisers aren't accountable to a university study, the latter finding does speak to the importance of a buddy system to keep motivation high. 

"Sometimes it works better if you're not too close to that person," Larson said.

"If it's a person that maybe you don't know quite as well, there's a bit more of an obligation to meet up with them at the gym and not let them down."

Other suggestions Larson offered included joining team sports, which have an added social layer, as well as incorporating activity into daily life, such as taking the stairs and walking or cycling to work.

"You don't need to go to the gym and exercise in order to be healthy," she said. "Building [physical activity] into your day whenever possible can make a really big difference in terms of your health."